Where is the soundtrack to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

In the year that my husband was deployed in Afghanistan I found music to be incredibly comforting. I lived in Baton Rouge but drove about an hour every morning out to the rural middle school where I taught math enrichment. I picked up my carpool mates in the dark and queued up my playlist as we pulled onto the highway. As my fellow teachers slept, I listened to music and watched the sunrise. My playlist was ever-changing and very long, but a few songs stand out in my memory:

Pete Seeger - "Going Across the Mountains"
Decemberists - "Yankee Bayonet"
Dixie Chicks - "Travelin Soldier"
Joanna Newsom - "Only Skin"
Hooray for Earth - "True Loves"
Ray LaMontagne - "God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise"
The Relatives - "Soldiers Desert"
A Perfect Circle - "Counting Bodies Like Sheep"
Metric - "Help I’m Alive"

Many of these songs are not overtly about war, or the experience of soldiers and their families. Yet, even among the songs that are, all but one or two call upon a previous era for their content. This point was not lost on me at the time. In the years since my husband’s deployment, I’ve talked with family, friends, academics, musicians, and music industry folk about why there seems to be a distinct lack of engagement with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the part of contemporary music.

This question would not feel so compelling if it wasn’t easy to point to the Vietnam era as a prime example of the complex and emotional role that music plays in a time of war. One can hardly picture the grainy black and white photos of Kent State or Saigon without hearing the voices of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and many more. Iconic films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are defined by their soundtracks. Yet, fifteen years on, when we survey our continued presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, what songs come to mind? What will the children of post 9/11 vets think of as emblematic of this era?

When I ask this question, most people cite the lack of a draft in this era as a reason for less involvement on the part of our musical and artistic brethren. I don’t think the answer is that easy. We continue to be engaged in the longest war in our nation’s history. One can pinpoint a short period between 2003 and 2007 when music was responding to the war in Iraq. This is the moment when Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ uttered her famous anti-Bush statement, A Perfect Circle released their full length antiwar album Emotive, and Green Day’s American Idiot played on every radio station. What happened? Well, there’s the ever-growing commercialization of the music industry which makes it financially dangerous for artists to express discontent. There was the White House ban on showing coffins returning from Iraq, part of a swelling media blackout that further insulated American families from the reality of war. There was yellow-ribbon patriotism, and the broad uncertainty that lay between the justified anger sparked by 9/11 and the smacking lies of WMDs in Iraq. Somewhere in the milieu we lost our voices — and the music stopped.  

On April 28th, Service Together and Teacher’s College, Columbia will explore the relationship between music and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Soundtrack of War. Join us for an evening of music, commentary, and community. Hear performances by Eli Smith of the Down Home Radio, Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders, and Ali Dineen, Feral Foster, and Ernie Vega. Intersections’ own Farid Johnson will provide a keynote address detailing the role of music from the Vietnam era through OIF/OEF. Brandon Mills, singer, songwriter, and Marine Recon Scout Sniper, will speak on the role of music in his own journey.

Soundtrack of WarSoundtrack of War
April 28th
6:30-8:30 PM
@ Teacher’s College
Columbia University
Milbank Chapel
525 West 120th Street

Reserve your ticket now at
Student discount tickets from $14, general admission $22


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